Alderman to Study Role of Geography, Geospatial Intelligence During Civil Rights Era

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, activist groups used geography and geospatial intelligence—collecting geographic information and understanding its potential to effect change—to identify protest sites and plan protests.

Alderman

Derek Alderman, a UT professor of geography, has received a three-year $373,000 National Science Foundation grant to explore those geospatial tactics and determine what can be learned about patterns of racial inequality. Alderman will also examine how groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) collected and leveraged geospatial intelligence data to bolster their activist efforts.

The findings will be crucial to advancing modern knowledge of geospatial intelligence, particularly since many of the issues of the civil rights era are still relevant today. It also would help define how we view African American resistance and geography in general, Alderman said.

Alderman will split the grant and conduct the research with Joshua Inwood, a former UT professor who is now at Pennsylvania State University.

SNCC was a group of mostly college-age students and workers who partnered with civil rights supporters to conduct sit-ins, lead freedom rides, and organize black voter registration in southern states.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members Ivanhoe Donaldson, Marion Barry and James Forman demonstrating against police brutality in Danville, Virginia, on June 10, 1963. (©Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos)

Organizations such as SNCC were geographers even though they would not identify themselves in that way, Alderman said.

“To combat white supremacy, SNCC created a research arm that engaged in a large-scale collecting and analyzing of geographic data in covert and strategic ways at the same time that the US government and white supremacist organizations were gathering intelligence on SNCC,” he said.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Field Secretary Cordell Reason teaches a workshop on nonviolent tactics in Danville, Virginia, in 1962. (©Danny Lyon / Magnum Photos)

The SNCC research operation compiled reports such as “The General Condition of the Alabama Negro,” using data and maps to identify areas of intense suffering of blacks at the hands of white supremacy. SNCC relied on grassroots organizing of communities and ordinary people, and the reports became a form of intelligence for local communities that they used to strategize protest efforts.

Alderman and Inwood recently uncovered evidence that SNCC used its reports to train community activists so they were aware of the counties and conditions they would be working in as they traveled to the Deep South to organize locals.

Additionally, Alderman and Inwood have evidence that SNCC used intelligence reports to map the economic networks connecting businesses owned by racists to larger banks and companies outside the South.

“They conducted this network mapping to show how white supremacy was truly a national problem and not simply a southern one,” Alderman said. “It also helped SNCC identify some leverage points for putting practical political pressure on businesses to reconsider segregationist policies by appealing to their larger economic networks outside the region.”

SNCC also engaged in a savvy communication of information to activists in the field to assist grassroots organizing within deep southern states.

“Beneath this story of what may appear to be simply a collection of statistics, news clippings, and interviews with victims is a larger tale of the multiple ways that civil rights was and is fought and the emancipatory role that geography—as a type of information and a way to view and analyze the world—can play in social life,” Alderman said. “It speaks to a conception of geography well beyond the stereotypical images of memorizing the names of state capitals and rivers. Geography was and is a vehicle for justice.”

As part of the project, Alderman and Inwood will interview surviving members of SNCC and conduct archival work across the United States.

The findings will help educators incorporate more about the complexity of the African-American experience into educational curricula in geography and other fields.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Derek Alderman (865-974-0406, dalderma@utk.edu)